Robot Surgeons Closer Than You Think



While aboard a DC-9 aircraft, a remote operator uses a robot to suture a section of simulated tissue.

If a robot surgeon is treating you, your life is in danger. That's not due to any machine-borne malice, but because current research into autonomous surgery is focused on battlefield casualties barely clinging to life and astronauts injured on distant planets. To demonstrate how that research is progressing, Silicon Valley-based SRI International and the University of Cincinnati held a series of tests this past September that sound like a cross between a PR stunt and a B-movie: human doctors squaring off against a robotic surgeon aboard a nose-diving DC-9 aircraft.

During periods of zero gravity and sustained acceleration of 1.8 g's, a robot made incisions and applied sutures on simulated tissue, while a human surgeon did the same. The purpose: to measure just how precise a remote-operated robot can be, especially in a turbulent or gravity-free environment. SRI hasn't released its results, but according to PM Advisory Board member Dr. Ken Kamler, who participated in one of the flight tests, the robot seemed to hold its own?until its compensation software was turned off. "The difference was huge," Kamler says. "It was virtually impossible [for it] to tie a knot." But with compensation engaged, the bot performed as well as it did on Earth.

And so the tests' true purpose was to showcase SRI's software. "We're not mimicking a surgeon," says Tom Low, SRI's director of medical devices and robotics, "but looking at what a robot can do better." By focusing on adaptive algorithms, SRI wants to move away from remote telesurgery and closer to autonomy. The company plans to build a system for NASA that could treat an astronaut on Mars, where communication delays of more than 20 minutes would make telesurgery impossible...

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-- Christian

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